It’s quiet here. Few cars pass the house these days. I don’t hear people driving to work in the morning. The school bus hasn’t gone by in years because there are no children out this way to be picked up or dropped off. Not many people live near us. On our stretch of road, most of the daffodils that bloomed this month displayed their yellow flowers outside abandoned homes. Living miles from town, and being old and retired, I’m acquainted with social distancing, and normally I don’t mind it. I enjoy solitude. I like to read. But this feels different.
On late-afternoon walks with our dogs, I used to see any number of people driving home from work. I’d get a wave and sometimes a smile from people I recognized only by their vehicles, and I’d wave back. There’s not much of that anymore. I’d also see familiar strangers while grocery shopping — people I’ve seen around town for years, though I don’t know their names. In the store I might run into friends from my 30 years of working in Oneonta, or from the YMCA, or from elsewhere in town. Stopping to chat with them was one of the pleasures of living in a small community. Sometimes, I’d even talk to strangers.
But none of that happened the last time I went grocery shopping. I left home in the dark, to make it to Hannaford’s early-shopping hour for people older than 60. Many were there when I arrived. Even their cars practiced social distancing, stationed far apart in the large, dark parking lot. A number of shoppers wore face masks and gloves in the store, though I didn’t. We wove around one another in the aisles. No one made eye contact. Every time I passed someone I instinctively held my breath. I’ll bet they did too. We were afraid of one another and looked like hunted animals. The cashier, at least, was an upbeat young woman with a ready smile, but we had to talk through a sheet of Plexiglass. I’m glad we had the protection, but the experience wasn’t a happy one. After stowing the groceries in my car, I put on winter gloves to avoid touching my face on the drive home.
I miss the social interactions in public places that I used to take for granted. Going to the library. Having pizza with old friends and swapping stories for an hour or two. And workouts at the Y with people I’ve known for years, buddies of mine who aren’t shy about pointing out that I sometimes spend more time talking than exercising.
Social isolation is harmful, experts say, especially to the elderly. It can lead to cognitive decline. It may hasten the onset of dementia. I know about normal cognitive decline, having recognized it in myself as I’ve grown older. So, last month, concerned about the effects of social isolation and not wanting to lose more brain cells than necessary, I stopped drinking alcohol and watching the president’s press briefings. It was a start, but I wanted to do more, to give my brain a workout. I began reading “In Search of Lost Time,” the monumental novel by Marcel Proust.
I’d first tried reading Proust when I was 18, but he was too much for me. I tried again when I was older and failed again. This time, though, I’m sticking to it. Volume One is more than a thousand pages long, with little dialogue and few white spaces. Each day I struggle through the thickets of dense prose, parting the branches of dependent and independent clauses laden with strings of adjectives and prepositional phrases, looking for a subject and a verb. Once I find them, I wend my way through the sentence, and move on to the rest of the paragraph. It’s work. Progress is slow. I feel like I’m crossing a continent three feet at a time.
I don’t know if these mental gymnastics will stave off cognitive decline. It’s worth the effort, though, to luxuriate among my new friends, upper-class French people living at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, people for whom social interaction is everything. They don’t stare passively at screens and aren’t separated by social media. They visit back and forth, embrace, kiss one another’s cheeks. Oh, here’s Monsieur Swann at the gate, with a basket of raspberries! They eat well (of course they do, they’re French) and sit talking in gardens on summer evenings. They live life to the fullest. They don’t know the Great War is barreling down on them. And they’ve never heard of the coronavirus.
Robert Bechtold lives in Morris. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.